Making Freedom Day a Success

The Prime Minister has announced plans for the full re-opening of the economy and the end of legal restrictions on how people can behave, from 19 July. I leave the debate on whether this is strategically the right decision to the epidemiologists and behavioural scientists, but of course I’d like to see a return to normal as soon as we can. The problem is that the way the government is taking this next step is already looking flawed, and we need to see some changes in their approach right now if we’re going to move forward safely.

The first big problem is the test and trace system and the requirement for close contacts to isolate which for our members and their colleagues means taking ten days off sick. Because isolation notifications are likely to cluster around common contacts, we’re seeing whole store teams being instructed to isolate while they don’t have symptoms and haven’t tested positive. This system may have looked workable in the context of low case numbers, but with rising case numbers inevitable and an explicit part of the government’s strategy, we’re now seeing stores – and pubs, entertainment venues and other facilities – being forced to close. This problem is exacerbated by existing staff shortages and colleague time being wasted waiting for late deliveries … also caused by labour shortages among drivers - a temporary relaxation of driver hours announced this week offers some mitigation.

There is some evidence that the government is addressing this problem, but the nudge nudge wink wink of the Chancellor noting that isolation instructions from the NHS Covid-19 App are not legally binding (which is true) is the most unhelpful intervention possible. So are people being advised to delete the app or turn off notifications? And if they do get a notification to isolate, are they being advised to ignore it because it’s not legally enforceable? What if (and I think this is a very likely scenario) a colleague comes to their employer and says, “I’ve been notified by the app to isolate but I haven’t got any symptoms, I want to come to work, is that OK?”? What are the employer’s obligations and are they open to future challenge if others contract Covid-19 and believe they caught it at the store?

Adjusting the sensitivity of the app may be helpful, but surely the answer here lies in test and release, in other words those notified to isolate getting a test and if that is shown to be negative being able to return to work and stop isolating. There are of course imperfections in play here – especially if the system runs off home lateral flow tests – but can anyone really argue that the current instructions to isolate are being driven with precision?

The government have already hit on one effective way of reducing the number of people isolating: ending the requirement for those who have been double-jabbed for at least a fortnight to isolate based on close contact. Except that rule doesn’t apply until 16 August, and the problems I’m describing here are already happening and will get much worse very quickly. Making that date 10 July would make a material difference.

This all really really matters because as cases rise we could see literally millions of people isolating, and that will mean hospitality businesses, food shops and others struggling to stay open and get supplies. This Summer could feel like the exact opposite of a return to our normal freedoms.

The second challenge we are facing into from 19 July – and frankly it’s an issue right now because as soon as the public heard the PM’s announcement on 5 July that would have triggered behaviour change – is the approach to social distancing and face coverings. It’s one thing for the government to decide to end all legal requirements and formal advice around social distancing, but their messaging around this has been confusing and shown no regard to the role that businesses and colleagues in shops, on public transport, hospitality and elsewhere will have to play.

Right now, thousands of businesses are thinking about how to balance the needs of customers with a  wide range of views: from those (the majority based on all polling) who are concerned about the end of social distancing and want to be reassured of the safety of places they visit, to those who see any advice on distancing and particularly on the totemic issue of face coverings as an affront. All this has to be considered alongside the needs of colleagues who are anxious to ensure stores remain safe. Businesses will be trying to explain these policies to their customers and colleagues, which is a difficult job and ACS has some resources to help.

So what’s the message from government to the public? Use your judgement and do what you like. No reference to the rights and concerns of people running and working in facilities from public transport to shops to pubs. When asked whether they would wear a face covering on a train or in another setting, Cabinet ministers should START their answers not with reference to their own excellent personal judgement and responsibility, but with this: “Firstly, I would look at the house rules of the transport company or retailer or hospitality venue that I was using, and I would follow those rules and encourage others to do the same.” Simple.

Everyone is worn out after a long and challenging sixteen months of dealing with the pandemic. That goes for government too, who of course have no established playbook for tackling this. They’ve got the system for isolation and their messages on voluntary social distancing wrong, and that’s understandable. What wouldn’t be acceptable is a failure to address these problems now, and to sleepwalk into the human, societal and economic costs that will ensue.

This entry was posted by Chloe on Fri, 09/07/2021 - 11:30